KATHMANDU, NEPAL — Devi Khadka was 17 years old when she joined the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). This was a tense time for not just her family, who were Maoist supporters, but all of Nepal. The country was in the middle of a bloody armed conflict that eventually claimed the lives of over 17,000 people and resulted in the disappearance of more than 2,500.
Khadka wanted to experience the “taste of liberation.” And the decision to take up arms and jump into the front lines was not just ideological but personal.
This was 1998. The conflict had started two years prior, when the Maoist movement fought to depose the royalist government to establish a “People’s Republic” in Nepal. For the common Nepali, all this meant was that — based on information given by informers on either side — anyone could be labeled as a spy and arrested, abducted or killed.
While Khadka agreed with the “ideas and sentiments” of the Maoist party even before joining, she stresses that before 1998 she was not a Maoist activist, and she was definitely not a “gun-carrying Mao-badi [Maoist].” Yet, in 1997, while on her way to the local market, Khadka says she was arrested by the Nepali Armed Police Force and “disappeared.” This, she says, was because she was the sister of Maoist leader Rit Bahadur Khadka, who was later killed in 2002.
Every day she lay handcuffed, she was beaten with the sharp edges of nettle, a stinging plant, and was repeatedly raped. Each day, she says, the same seven men raped her, throwing her “from one lap to the other.” “As they were raping me, they scoffed, ‘You will overthrow the monarchy?’ ‘You, insignificant creature, will bring democracy?’” She was then sent to police custody for 28 days, and from there, jailed for four months.
After being released, Khadka, now 42, feared that the society she lived in would not accept her. When she returned, she says her mother told her, “You should have died there.” For a while after, Khadka felt that the rapes were her own fault.
Khadka was born in a mountainous village of Jungu in Dolakha district, 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Kathmandu Valley. The world around her was full of discrimination, she says. The rich against the poor, the powerful against the landless, and men against women. From a very young age, she decided she would join politics and work for women, but it was her personal encounter with the conflict that caused her to jump in.
Growing up with the societal belief that a woman should not be tainted even by a man’s shadow, Khadka also regretted that she could not protect her so-called ijjat, or honor.
Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal
“The patriarchy of our society defines a woman’s honor as being tied to her vagina,” says Binda Pandey, an activist and former member of Parliament. “Instead of seeing sexual violence against women as an appalling crime, it is perceived as a loss of a woman’s honor.”
For years after her release, Khadka battled depression and grappled with suicidal ideas. Uttering the word “rape,” or even its mention, triggered her. “Shame is a woman’s greatest fear,” she says.
In June 1998, she picked up arms. She became a commander for the People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Maoist party. In 2002, she became the Maoist Dolakha district secretary. And from 2011 through 2013, she served as the state minister for the then-Ministry of Physical Planning and Development (now the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport).
Until she became a minister, she says she only knew three other women who had experienced rape. When she became a minister, other women tried raising the issue with her. However, Khadka did not follow up — initially because she was grappling with depression, and later because she couldn’t get her party to back her, she says.
The burden of not speaking up weighed heavily on her. The more women she met, the more she realized the brutality of the war. Women who were gang-raped continued to face physical, mental and financial challenges. Some women’s uteruses fell, and they did not receive treatment due to fear of social exclusion and lack of funds. In some cases, animals were used to rape the women. Sticks and guns were inserted into their vaginas, and salt and pepper were put in, says Jaya Luitel, the founder of The Story Kitchen, an organization that has been working with the women who experienced the conflict to create a safe space for them to share their stories.
Stories of such brutality were ample. Chaudhary, a woman born in a western district of Nepal, says she was raped in 2001 at the age of 13. Chaudhary, who is using only her last name because of the stigma associated with rape, says she remembers her rapists stripping her and shouting, “She is a spy.” As they hit her on her head, she says she lost consciousness. When she woke up, she was lying naked, and her body was covered in blood. She didn’t tell anyone that she was raped — twice.
It was a strange time. Fear of the army and police, she says, prompted the men in the village to either join the Maoists or escape to India. Only women were left in her village. Security forces repeatedly raped the women in the village, she says.
In November 2006, after the government of Nepal and the Maoists signed the Comprehensive Peace Accord, the government identified martyred, injured and disabled individuals and provided them or their families with relief funds. But women who were raped or sexually assaulted were never identified for relief, Luitel says.
To rectify this, women around the country, under the leadership of Khadka, have come together in an organized way to demand the government recognize those who experienced sexual violence as victims of the conflict. Their other demands include that the government take responsibility for their physical and mental treatment and support them in their legal battles for justice.
Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal
After the peace agreement, peace committees were formed in every village to help with the transition out of conflict. Like Khadka, Chaudhary filed a complaint, but the complaint was registered as a case of “injury” because rape and sexual violence were not listed as a category.
There is a long way to go. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established to investigate human rights violations during the 10-year conflict, 314 women who were raped and sexually assaulted in the war filed a petition. One of them is Khadka. Her network connected with over 10% of those women, she says; the vast majority reported being assaulted by government forces, the rest by fighters.
In 2011, the government adopted a national action plan detailing the steps it was taking to meet its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions to support women affected by the conflict. But the plan, which phased out in 2016, did not address those who have experienced sexual violence, says Ajita Sharma, undersecretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs. To specifically address such issues, the government has prepared a second plan, she says, that focuses on women who were raped and sexually abused.
Tikaram Pokharel, spokesperson for the National Human Rights Commission, says the state should have prevented such incidents from happening in the first place. “Because the state could not provide justice, [these women] organized to demand justice, [which then] makes the state reluctant to deliver justice,” he says. He adds that in such cases, “it is very difficult for women to provide proof of rape and sexual violence. It is said that what women say is proof, but in such cases that alone is not enough.”
For the women who have been silent all this while, Khadka has become “the voice of the voiceless,” says Srijana Shrestha, of the Conflict Victim Women National Network, a Kathmandu-based forum. Shrestha’s husband was killed during the height of the conflict.
But not all see Khadka in such glowing terms. Shanti Maya Tamang Pakhrin’s husband was killed in 2002. Pakhrin accuses the resistance forces of killing him because he refused to donate to their cause. She also believes that Khadka is only organizing conflict-era women as a ladder to reach power. “This is just theatrics to get popular after she realized she was not moving ahead in her political career,” Pakhrin says.
Khadka, however, says she is confident of her role. “If I lose in this battle, the history of women seeking justice will be erased,” she says.